Bai Qian was bored. And so was her fox.
Sitting on a hard and uncomfortable marble bench in the corner of the courtyard, she swung her legs back and forth to count the minutes the way Si Ge had taught her. If she moved her arms or legs (or tails) in just the right rhythm, she could keep track of the time. Fidgeting in place with a sigh, Bai Qian looked around at the trees and shrubs surrounding this part of the Celestial Gardens, keeping the area secluded and private for Heavenly Father’s family.
How much longer did she have to sit here?
The bright flowers in the gardens were beautiful but Bai Qian wanted to see the rest of the Heavens. There were so many unknown places up here to explore. And so many new and fascinating scents swirling around in the air that she wanted to follow. She had never known dragons smelled like different types of weather. She couldn’t wait to tell Si Ge about that discovery.
Father had promised he would take her to see all the interesting places in the Heavens but, so far, he had only shown her the interior of the Celestial Palace and the royal family’s private area of the garden. Her innate curiosity was nowhere near satisfied with just those two things. Plus, how was she supposed to make her brothers, especially Si Ge, jealous if she didn’t get to see the rest of the Heavens?
Bai Qian had been last her whole life; last to be born, last to see interesting things, last to do fun activities, last to hear riveting stories or rumors, last to reach important milestones. She despised being last all the time just because she was the youngest. It wasn’t fair. She had spent so many years hearing about all she was missing out on from her brothers. This visit to the Heavens was her opportunity to finally experience something before any of her brothers did; none of them had been in the Heavens. She was finally first and she didn’t want to leave until she had many stories to tell them.
Her mind flashed back to the giant dragon figurine carved into the wall above the dais of the throne room she had marveled at earlier, impressed with its seemingly lifelike appearance. But Bai Qian had never seen a dragon other than those in paintings or sculptures, so she had no idea if that was what one really looked like. Bai Qian decided she had to see a real dragon while she was here. Her brothers would never be able to beat that!
Knowing the sight of Heavenly Father’s dragon was considered to be sacred, Bai Qian worried it would be rude to ask him to shift into his mighty beast. She imagined her father would scold her and then lecture her on proper manners if she dared to ask. She hated sitting through boring lectures and they lasted longer when she allowed her mind to wander, which she always did. So she shouldn’t ask Heavenly Father. Zhe Yan had told her and Si Ge that Heavenly Father had two sons around the same age as Si Ge. Maybe she could find one of them or another dragon closer to her own age to ask.
But she couldn’t see or do any of these things just sitting here. Would it hurt if she decided to walk around a little?
Glancing at her father, she made a face when she saw he was still absorbed in his discussion with Heavenly Father on the other side of the courtyard. Boring grownup talk could last forever. What if he spent so much time talking there was no time leftover for exploring? Her father was no longer paying attention to her. Would he notice if she explored a few public areas of the garden?
When they had first arrived, her father had kept a close eye on her, glancing her way every few minutes to remind her with his pointed looks that she had promised not to wander away and to be on her best behavior while in the Heavens. That had been the deal she had struck with him when he had agreed to take her with him instead of one of her brothers. And she had been good this whole time, staying close as they had walked through the palace and along the garden path. Bai Qian had even limited the number of questions she asked the guards they had passed on the way to this courtyard even though they had been patient about answering her.
Her father had asked her to sit on this bench but he hadn’t told Bai Qian she had to stay in this one spot. She had been sitting here for what felt like hours! Would it really hurt if she got up for a few minutes. She wasn’t really wandering away as long as she stayed in the garden, was she? She wouldn’t go far and she would come right back. If nothing else, she could ask the guards which places she should visit while here in the Heavens. And she could ask about a dragon her own age.
Making up her mind, Bai Qian looked again to see if her father was watching. How long had it been since he had last checked on her? She had lost track of the exact time but she thought it had been at least half an hour since he had last glanced her way, maybe even longer. He was too busy talking. She should be able to explore the garden for a few minutes and return before he even noticed her missing.
Smiling when her fox jumped excitedly, encouraging her to go, Bai Qian slid off the bench then inched her way to the nearest break in the shrubs. With one last check to make sure her father wasn’t looking, she stepped around the corner and followed the path toward the public areas of the Celestial Gardens.
Tripping as she approached a stern faced guard, Bai Qian lifted the uneven hem of her patchwork dress a little so she could walk easier. She was still “growing into it” as her mother had told her she would when Bai Qian had complained the dress was too long. Her mother had picked out a different “suitable” dress for her to wear to the Heavens, but Bai Qian had snuck out of the Fox Den wearing this one instead when her father had told her it was time to go. She liked all the different patches of bright colors. Her mother would never know she had worn it as long as she snuck back into the Fox Den and changed.
“Excuse me,” Bai Qian said as she neared the guard’s side. “Where can I find a …?”
A musical trilling sound caught Bai Qian’s attention and she looked up to see two birds with brilliant feathers flying overhead, singing in harmony with one another. The birds possessed feathers whose colors matched that of a rainbow and gave off a subtle glow.
“Wow! Do all birds in the Heavens look like rainbows?” she asked, wonder in her voice, forgetting all about her earlier question.
“Many of them do, Princess,” the guard answered with a smile.
“They look like they would shine at night. Is it really always light outside, even at night? Do you still call it “night” when it’s not dark outside?”
“Is it hard to sleep when it’s not dark? I used to hate taking naps during the day when I was little but Mother and Father always made me take them,” Bai Qian continued after the guard nodded to answer her earlier questions. “Mother always complains I was fussy and uncontrollable without a nap. How do you see the moon and stars? Don’t you miss them?” She paused to study his face, eyes widening with concern. “Have you never seen the moon and stars? They’re very pretty.”
“I’ve seen them,” the guard answered with a small laugh. “I liked to look up at the stars often while growing up. I haven’t always lived here in the Heavens.”
“Where can I find a dragon my age?” Bai Qian asked, changing the topic as she remembered her quest to see a real dragon.
The guard blinked, taken aback by the abrupt change before smiling again. “The Princes should be around here somewhere. Have you not met them yet? You may be able to find one or both of them near the lotus ponds.” The guard pointed toward a path leading out of the Celestial Garden. “If you follow that path, it will take you there. Would you like for me to summon a lady’s maid to escort you?”
“No, thank you,” Bai Qian called out as she hurried toward the path, remembering to lift up the hem of her dress only after tripping on it again. Excited by the chance to see lotus blossoms, Bai Qian had forgotten all about her plan to stay within the boundaries of the Celestial Garden. None grew in the waters of Qing Qiu so it had been awhile since she had last seen some. Her fox was excited by the chance to explore new territory and urged Bai Qian to run faster once the floral fragrance of the lotus flowers started to perfume the air.
“Wow.” Bai Qian’s earlier exclamation was spoken in a hushed whisper this time as she stood in awe at her first glimpse of the Blessed Water Gardens. The tranquil waters, divided into numerous large ponds filled with beautiful lotus flowers, stretched out before her for as far as she could see. The colorful kaleidoscope of blossoms, subtle pastels mixed in with vivid shades of red and blue, beckoned her closer. She could feel the divine energy radiating from the lotuses as they swayed gently in the calm waters; it reminded her of the aura contained within her peach tree forest.
Eyes following the maze of stone pathways leading visitors around the many different ponds, Bai Qian also spotted areas of green. She thought they must be small grassy areas that had been set aside for quiet contemplation and meditation, as her father would say; she had no idea where to explore first. But she wanted to see all of it.
As she often did when in a new place, Bai Qian allowed her fox to guide them, taking the turns her fox indicated and following the paths her fox chose.
Distracted as she was by the sight of all the flowers, which seemed to go on forever, Bai Qian reached the heart of the water gardens without even realizing it. When her fox urged her to stop, Bai Qian headed toward the edge of the closest pond, intent on touching the delicate petals if she could reach one of the blossoms. But her fox directed her to go in a different direction instead, toward the opening of an alcove that was hidden from view by trees and shrubs.
Following her fox’s guidance, Bai Qian discovered an open grassy area that looked over a smaller more private lotus pond than the others, a pond filled with red and pink flowers. Freezing in place for a moment when she noticed the spot was occupied, Bai Qian’s eyes widened when she took in the faces of the two boys in front of her. The twin dragon princes! They really were identical. She had always thought Zhe Yan was exaggerating when he said they looked exactly alike but now she wondered how anyone could tell them apart.
Feeling a sudden and rare moment of shyness, Bai Qian did not approach them at first. Engrossed in their own activities, neither twin gave any indication she had been seen yet. One appeared to be meditating near a bed of yellow flowers; he was sitting on the grass in a lotus position and his eyes were closed. The other boy was sitting right near the edge of the pond, a table and sheet of paper spread out in front of him. What was he doing? Painting! The answer came to Bai Qian when she saw him make a few strokes on the paper after dipping his brush in a well of red paint.
Curious about what type of picture the boy was painting, Bai Qian forgot all about her shyness as she moved closer. Not knowing any artists, she had never seen anybody paint up close before. Would he let her sit next to him and watch? Eager to find out and to introduce herself, Bai Qian’s pace picked up as she approached him only to lose her footing as she tripped again.
As if in slow motion, Bai Qian saw the dragon prince look up a second before she stumbled toward him, knocking into his arm. Horrified, she watched his arm jerk and then hit the well of paint, which tumbled onto its side, rolling across the paper and leaving a smear of bright red in its wake. For a second nobody moved or spoke, a tense silence descending over them. In that prolonged second, Bai Qian realized two important things– she had forgotten to hold up the hem of her dress and the dragon prince’s eyes were flashing with anger as he scowled at her.
“I’m so sor…”
“Watch where you’re going, you clumsy girl!” The prince jumped up and grabbed one of Bai Qian’s loose braids, giving it a good yank. “Look what you did!”
“I’m not clumsy!” Bai Qian yelled back, forgetting all about apologizing as her scalp prickled with pain. Without thinking, she reacted the way she always did when one of her brothers pulled her hair or one of her tails. She kicked the dragon prince in the shin… hard, feeling satisfaction when he cried out.
“What’d you do that for?!” He reached down to rub his leg through the fabric of his robe.
“You pulled my hair, you…you… you rude boy!”
“Rude?! I’m rude?” The prince pointed to the sheet of paper on the table next to him with a violent jerk of his right hand. “You ruined my painting!”
“It was an accident!”
Bai Qian narrowed her eyes when she heard his skeptical tone. “Yes, an accident! It means I didn’t do it on purpose!”
“I know what it means!”
“Do you? Because you don’t act like it.” Bai Qian looked around her when his only response was a mean glare, searching for an excuse to use rather than telling him the truth, that she had been too busy watching him paint to pay attention. “I was… distracted by the lotus flowers and tripped. It really was an accident!”
“Well, maybe If you weren’t wearing that ridiculous looking skirt it wouldn’t have happened,” the prince retorted dismissively, giving her outfit a look of disdain.
With an outraged gasp, Bai Qian gave him the meanest look she could muster. How dare he insult her favorite dress like that?! She had spent hours picking out all the bright colors and different fabrics, arranging them into the correct patchwork pattern. And it had taken the seamstress days to get the uneven hem sewn the way Bai Qian had wanted it. It wasn’t her fault the dress was still a little big on her. She took a step toward him with a growl, searching for the best insult she could while ignoring her fox’s urging to just let it go.
“It’s a dress, you dummy! Can’t you even tell the difference between a dress and a skirt?!”
“Why does it matter?!” he shot back with a growl of his own. “Whatever it is… it looks ridiculous on you!”
“It’s supposed to look this way! Father says it gives me character.”
The prince scoffed. “Of course he said that. Your father has to say things like that so he doesn’t hurt your feelings. It doesn’t make it true.”
Bai Qian’s hand clenched into a fist as she moved closer to him, remembering all the tips her brothers had given her so she could make a hit count despite her small size. “My father doesn’t lie to me!”
“Wait, Ye Hua. She’s about to hit you if you don’t stop.”
“Let her hit me. I’m not afraid of a puny little girl, Da Ge. Stay out of this.”
Having forgotten all about the other twin, Bai Qian startled when he ignored Ye Hua’s order and stepped in between her and his brother, turning to face her. She glared at him now before turning her scowl back to Ye Hua.
“Well, I’m not afraid of you either. You’re a big bully!”
“Please just calm down… both of you. To be fair, miss, you interrupted us. What are you doing here? Are you lost?”
“No, I’m not lost,” she retorted, feeling very indignant that the other twin was talking about what was fair when it was now two of them against one of her. And did he have to sound so condescending about it? “I was trying to enjoy the lotus flowers. This has nothing to do with you. You’re as rude as he is.” Bai Qian jabbed a finger in Ye Hua’s direction for emphasis.
Ye Hua jumped back into the conversation. “Hey! Don’t talk about my brother like that…”
The memory became hazier after that point.
Trying to remember what had happened next, Bai Qian watched the rude dragon princes talk quietly with each other after Zhe Yan left the forest. She remembered that there had been an argument involving all three of them and that her father and Heavenly Father had not been happy when they discovered them bickering.
Bai Qian had not gotten the chance to sneak back into the Den because her father had kept a very close eye on her after she wandered away; her mother had been annoyed with her when she discovered the switch in dresses Bai Qian had made. And Bai Qian had not escaped the long lecture from her father she had hoped to avoid.
Ears drooping, Bai Qian recalled how tedious her father’s lectures could be. She had listened to more of them than she could count and had always dreaded them. Now, she would give away every one of her few precious possessions for the chance to sit through one of her father’s boring lectures again or to hear her mother scold her for some mischief she had caused. She missed the sound of their voices very much sometimes.
Chasing away the sad thought before it could take hold and the lonely despair could settle back in, Bai Qian forced herself to stay in the present, turning her attention to Ye Hua once again. The other rude twin, Zhe Yan had called him Mo Yuan, had disappeared. Only Ye Hua remained, now seated at the table his brother had used to play his guqin. If nothing else, the vexing man served as a good distraction for her. Her fox urged her to move closer but Bai Qian remained in her spot. Was he the one…?
A brush appeared in Ye Hua’s hand along with multiple small jars on the wooden surface of the desk. The scent of paint wafted her way when he removed the lid from one of the jars, answering her question.
He was that twin, the one who had pulled her hair and insulted her favorite dress! She had suspected it earlier but here was the proof to confirm it. Why did it not surprise her to learn the rudest of the two dragon princes had grown up to become a very vexing man?
Lifting her upper lip, Bai Qian bared her sharp teeth at him in a silent snarl before finally admitting to the humor in the memory of the old argument. She recalled with sudden clarity the way his eyes had darkened until they were almost black right before his abrupt and begrudging apology to her after refusing to do so for several long minutes, despite Heavenly Father telling him to. He may have apologized first but it had sounded insincere to her; the issue still felt unresolved.
It was an accident and you shouldn’t have pulled my hair.
Feeling a sense of victory now that she had gotten the last word in the argument, albeit a silent one, Bai Qian started to tuck her paws back underneath her body to settle into a comfortable position to watch him paint. But her fox urged her to move closer to the dragon once again. Bai Qian considered the idea, tilting her head as she watched Ye Hua dip his brush in a well of paint and start to move it over the paper laid out before him in practiced strokes.
Her old feeling of curiosity was returning, Bai Qian realized with some surprise. She wanted to know what he was painting this time. Would she finally have the chance to watch him create an image on paper? That was all she had wanted to do when approaching him that long ago day.
She couldn’t see the paper at all from her current vantage point; she needed to be on the other side of the pathway so she could sit behind him. There were places to hide over there that would give her a better view. Could she make it over there without revealing her presence?
With her fox’s excited encouragement, Bai Qian waited until Ye Hua appeared entirely focused on whatever he was painting before standing on noiseless paws. Wrapping an invisibility barrier around herself, hoping she could keep it in place long enough, Bai Qian crept out of her hiding spot and moved down the pathway a little bit. She darted across the dirt path and under a bush, losing her control over the barrier at the last second.
The loud pounding of her heart drowned out all other noise as Bai Qian then slowly snuck her way from one hiding spot to the next until she reached a large log lying on the forest floor very close to Ye Hua. She wrapped her tails tight around her body and ducked close to the ground, scarcely breathing, when she heard Ye Hua move. Had he spotted her? The whisper soft sound of his brush gliding across the paper, a surprisingly soothing noise, told Bai Qian she was in the clear.
Peeking her head over the top of the log, Bai Qian found if she tilted her head in just the right position, she could glimpse the top corner of the image Ye Hua was painting. She watched in wonder as she recognized the branches of trees laden with peach blossoms begin to take shape. He was painting her peach tree forest! Wishing she could see more of the image, Bai Qian’s eyes never left the intriguing sight of him painting. She could feel a tranquil energy permeating through his powerful aura now; it wrapped around her and soothed her into a new state of calm she had never experienced before.
Not having to give the decision any thought at all, Ye Hua knew exactly what he wanted to paint. Her indescribable beauty had been ingrained in his mind starting from the second he finally laid eyes on her. Even though she had only been there, at most, a minute or two, he remembered every detail of her snow white fur, long fluffy tails, and cautious but curious brown eyes. He had wanted to preserve on paper that fleeting moment when she had not been scared of him ever since.
Outlining the first trunks and branches of the peach trees that would provide the background for the painting, Ye Hua found it difficult to become completely engrossed in the image as was his usual habit when painting. Always in the back of his mind was the knowledge Bai Qian still remained hidden near him; the black dragon continued to sense her. And other than that moment of panic earlier in the day, there was no fear in the air that he or his dragon could detect. He thought it a wonderful and positive development.
Despite the presence of the peaceful calm that always engulfed Ye Hua and his dragon when Ye Hua painted, the black dragon did not settle into his usual quiet repose. The strong instinct to always protect his fox ran hot through him whenever he could feel her close; he remained alert and watchful, his attention never wavering as he focused on the feel of her aura, which he was slowly learning how to detect and read, and surveilled their surroundings for any unusual changes. If anything or anyone posed a threat to his fox, he would be able to respond in less than a second to defend her. He would keep her safe.
These same thoughts echoed in Ye Hua’s mind as he began filling in the outlines of the trees with varying shades of brown and pink, bringing the image of the forest to life on paper.
Hearing a hushed rustle of leaves behind him, Ye Hua’s brush paused mid-stroke. Bai Qian had just moved to a spot behind him. The desire to look back to see if he could see her once again was a powerful one but he did not give in to it, knowing how easily he could scare her with such a sudden move. Above all else, he did not want her to run from him again. His dragon liked having her near. And Ye Hua intended for his painting to be a gift for her. How could he give it to her if he scared her away?
Determined to give no indication he knew she was there, Ye Hua continued his painting. The familiar feel of the brush in his hand helped him regain some of his focus once again and he immersed himself within the image as best he could, knowing his dragon was watching over Bai Qian for them both.
Finding the meditative state he had been looking for when he started to paint the image of Bai Qian’s nine-tailed fox, Ye Hua became fully engaged with capturing every small detail of her beauty correctly, a real challenge with her fur being pure white. The fine brush strokes had to be subtle and not too heavy-handed; otherwise, he would ruin the effect and spoil the picture. He would be very disappointed in himself if that happened.
Losing track of time, several hours passed quietly without Ye Hua’s notice.
Putting the finishing touches on the white fox’s whiskers and cute black nose, Ye Hua assessed the painting critically. He was mostly satisfied with the end result; there were a few places he hadn’t quite gotten the details right. But, overall, he thought he had recreated an image of Bai Qian’s fox correctly.
Stretching his neck and shoulders to relieve some of the stiffness in his muscles, Ye Hua straightened and looked up to find the time was later than he had expected; afternoon had turned into early evening. He needed to go but found himself reluctant to leave Bai Qian alone; the black dragon having reassured Ye Hua she was still near them and still safe and sound. His dragon requested they stay the night in the peach tree forest with her.
The idea tempted Ye Hua but he did not give in to it, reminding himself and his dragon the forest had served as a safe haven for Bai Qian for thousands of years. She had clearly shown she knew the area better than anyone else and could use that knowledge to her advantage should there ever be a threat.
Soon, Ye Hua told the black dragon when he protested Ye Hua’s decision. For Mo Yuan’s advice had been sound as it almost always was; after painting this afternoon, Ye Hua had a clear idea in mind for his next step with Bai Qian. He just needed to speak with his parents about it first.
Waving a hand over the paper before him, Ye Hua dried all the still damp areas of the painting before carefully rolling it up. He summoned a bright yellow ribbon to his hand and secured it around the paper with a neat bow. He then used a fine-tipped brush to write two words on the outside of the scroll in black before passing his hand over the wet ink forming the characters to dry it. His gift was ready.
Ye Hua placed the roll of paper on the forest floor next to his side before slowly standing so as not to startle Bai Qian with any sudden movements. He did not look around despite the lingering temptation to gaze upon her lovely fox again. Soon, he repeated, both to reassure himself and the black dragon, who was still upset to be leaving when his white fox had been nearby all day and showed no intentions of leaving her spot close to them.
Sparing one last glance at his gift for Bai Qian, Ye Hua faded from view to cloud-jump back to the Heavens, bringing Mo Yuan’s table with him.
Remaining motionless in place behind the log for several long minutes after Ye Hua had left, Bai Qian stared at the sheet of rolled up paper lying on the ground before her. Surprised to see something written on the paper in bold black brushstrokes, she read the two words over and over.
He had left his painting behind for her. Ye Hua had known she was there the whole time… that thought circled around in her head many times before she finally stood and approached the gift on silent paws.
⇛ Next part: Ch 17: A Changing Heart
⇚ Previous part: Ch 15: A Promise Made